The Notre Dame faithful have been waiting impatiently for the Brian Kelly edition of the Fighting Irish to take to the turf at Notre Dame Stadium, and now suddenly the first game of the 2010 season is bearing down on us like a runaway train and there doesn't seem to be enough time to brace for the inevitable collision. It's game week and there is much to do before kick-off on Saturday:
- Write my "Good Luck Coach Kelly" blog post. (Done).
- Prepare my pre-draft strategy and pre-rank players for the OC Domer Fantasy Football League draft. (Done).
- Submit my weekly picks for Subway Domer's college football pick 'em pool. (Done).
- Write my 2010 Fighting Irish season preview blog post (You're reading it).
- Write this week's contribution to the Irish Blogger Gathering. (Pending).
- Study NFL point spreads, pre-season college and NFL power rankings, and handicap three or four games for the contest against my Dad and my youngest brother. (Pending).
- Pre-trial preparation on my day job. (Really cramping my style!)
What do I expect from Coach Kelly and the Irish in 2010? We've got a new coaching staff, a radically different playbook, but mostly the same players (although there are some surprises in the two-deep as several starters in 2009 have been passed up by new faces). Clausen & Tate are gone, but they are replaced by some outstanding, if raw, talent.
In trying to come up with a rational way of looking at the coming season I start with a few core assumptions:
- Brian Kelly and his staff are at least as good at coaching today as they were at Cincinnati a year ago.
- The player talent at Notre Dame is at least as good as the talent at Cincinnati.
- The player talent at ND in 2010 is overall at least as good as it was in 2009.
- The significant changes in coaches and system, coupled with a new quarterback, will result in a learning curve of some unknown duration and will result in some bumps in the road.
The answer, of course, is that the Bearcats were better coached. They were significantly better coached.
And now, the coaching staff that won 12 games in 2009 with Cincinnati's talent is at Notre Dame with its more talented players (See Assumption 2). If the more talented players are coached as well as the Bearcats were last year (Assumption 1), then the Fighting Irish should be at least as good as, if not better than, the Bearcats of 2009, eventually (See Assumption 4, Learning Curve). At the very least, better coaching in 2010 should make the Irish better than they were in 2009 with a similar overall level of talent.
On offense, I expect that ND will end up with similar overall numbers as we saw under Charlie Weis when the offense was clicking. In 2009 the Irish ranked #32 in scoring offense (30.1 ppg) and #8 in total offense (451.8 ypg). Cincinnati was ranked #4 in scoring offense (39.3 ppg) and #11 in total offense (447.5 ypg). That isn't a huge gap between the programs in 2009. The difference I expect to see is that with the new scheme the offense will be more consistently productive. Fewer three & out drives. Less reliance on just throwing the ball up in the air and hoping that Tate or Floyd will make a great play. Less coming from behind and hoping Jimmy can pull off a miracle. I expect the new offense will steadily and reliably move the chains (albeit with a high tempo) rather than operate in fits and starts as we often did in 2009. Although the final numbers might look similar, the new offense will do a better job of controlling the game and managing field position. The receivers are a talented group (Floyd, Riddick, Jones, Rudolph), and after watching him in the Blue & Gold game I expect Cierre Wood to be a real home run threat every time he gets a small gap to run through. Much will of course depend on Dayne Crist. But Coach Kelly has a proven track record of getting his QBs ready to play at a high level.
On defense I expect to see improvement, but not drama. The Irish defense was a severe disappointment in 2009. The Corwin Brown & Jon Tenuta tandem blew up in Charlie Weis' face to some degree. There seemed to be some talent there, and it flashed occasionally, but the season was marred by atrocious tackling, missed assignments, and players out of position. The Notre Dame defense was ranked #63 in scoring defense in '09 (25.9 ppg) and #86 in total defense (397.8 ypg). Really, really disappointing. The Bearcats were better on defense in 2009, but only by about 20 spots. They were #44 in scoring defense (23.1 ppg) and #67 in total defense (374 ypg). That isn't a dramatic difference, but it is significant. Those 20 spots of defensive ranking appear to have been the difference between winning and losing close games. Notre Dame lost 6 games in '09 by a combined total of just 28 points. They lost to Michigan by just 4, Navy by 2, Pitt by 5, and UConn by 3. Cincinnati didn't lose any close games, but won three real nail-biters: By 3 over West Virginia, by 2 over UConn, and by just 1 over Pitt. The new defensive scheme seems to emphasize assignment football and keeping the play in front of you. No big plays, no high-risk high-reward blitz schemes. The D will be bend-but-don't-break, with an emphasis on fundamentals like TACKLING. The big plays will come when the opponent makes a mistake with an ill-advised throw, or a missed block, or a fumble. Make the opponent earn every yard and every point, and figure that we can slow teams down enough that the offense can out-score 'em.
I think the biggest difference we'll see will be very subtle. So subtle that you really won't see it unless you're looking for it. That difference will be game management. Coach Weis' teams were plagued by "bad breaks" or "bad luck" that resulted in blown leads, or wasted possessions, or missed opportunities that ended up costing the Irish winnable games. The lessons that Brian Kelly has learned in 20 seasons as a head coach will enable him to minimize the gaffes and the bad breaks and to maximize and seize upon the opportunities. Coach Kelly and his staff have a handle on the myriad small details upon which the outcome of a game can turn. As noted above, the Cincinnati Bearcats won all the close ones in 2009. And they won all the close ones in 2008 as well. Coincidence? I think not.
So I see a dynamic, entertaining offense, with the ball getting quickly into the hands of numerous play makers who will be fun to watch. I see a scrappy, fundamentally sound defense that makes offenses earn every yard. And I see a team that will look well-coached and disciplined and which minimizes mental errors. How do all these things translate into Win and Losses?
Let's look at the schedule. (Confidence level is my subjective prediction of the percentage chance of a Notre Dame win).
Sept. 4: Purdue. We beat the Boilers in '08 and '09, so getting them in our place with all the excitement of a new coach and a new season should mean a win. Normally Purdue is somewhat overlooked on our schedule as the third or fourth game of the year, typically coming off tough games against Michigan and Michigan State. This usually means that Purdue is a little more focused and "up" for the games than the Irish are. Not this year. This year Purdue is batting lead-off, and all Irish eyes are on the Boilers. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 85%.
Sept. 11: Michigan. We lost a game that should have been an important win for Charlie Weis in the Big House last season. But we get the Wolverines at our place this time, and UM's off-season has been filled with tumult and distractions. Plus, they can't cheat by breaking NCAA practice rules this year. The new Irish coaches are very familiar with Dick Rod's spread offense, so we should defend it much better this year. The desire to atone for the 2009 debacle in Atrocity in Ann Arbor will get the Irish off to a 2-0 start. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%.
Sept 18: @Michigan State. Night game in East Lansing. First road start for Dayne Crist, very hostile environment. Possible let-down off the win over Michigan. I am not convinced yet that our guys can go toe-to-toe with a very physical Sparty squad, which will have played two cupcakes as warm-ups prior to the ND game. Prediction: Loss. Confidence: 45%. (i.e., 45% chance of Irish win).
Sept. 25: Stanford. Andrew Luck is a really nice quarterback. And Jim Harbaugh is an excellent young coach. But Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 205 yards in last year's game, is now a Minnesota Viking. Harbaugh isn't going to out-coach Kelly. Irish back in the friendly confines, smarting from a tough trip to East Lansing, get back on track against the Cardinal. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 65%.
Oct. 2: @Boston College. Back on the road. A tough game, but B.C. comes off a brutal contest against Virginia Tech. We beat 'em in '09, and this year we're better coached. So we beat 'em in 2010. But it's close. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%.
Oct. 9: Pittsburgh. Irish lost a tough one in Pittsburgh in '09. Panthers picked by many to win the Big East in '10. Coach Kelly and his Bearcats beat Pitt @ Pitt in a close one last year. Can he pull the same feat at home with better talent? Yes, he can. Barely. Maybe. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 55%.
Oct. 16: Western Michigan. I guess I appreciate them making the trip, but I have no idea how the Broncos got on the schedule. What a lousy home game for all the alumni who travel across the country to catch one game per season. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 95%.
Oct. 23: Navy (@ Meadowlands). I don't like the Irish in the Meadowlands. But here is where the coaching experience, the up-tempo practices, the emphasis on speed of play and fundamentals pays off. No more nail-biters against the middies. It won't be a blow-out, but it'll be over by early in the 4th quarter. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%.
Oct. 30: Tulsa. Another really unusual opponent, the Golden Hurricane come into Notre Dame Stadium off a bye week. 5-7 in 2009 against a weak schedule, Tulsa nonetheless can be a dangerous team. As long as we come to play we'll be fine. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 80%.
Nov. 6: -BYE-
Nov. 13: Utah. An excellent home game! And the OC Domer clan will be in the house. Utah is a highly regarded squad that will be looking to make a name for itself on national T.V. The Utes run a spread offense, which won't confuse many Irish defenders who see it every day in practice. Notre Dame has an extra week to prepare for this one, while the Utes are on the road after playing a tough game against TCU. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%.
Nov. 20: Army (@ Yankee Stadium). Really cool game to see if you can make it. Lot's of historical overtones for the old school football fan. A typically hard-nosed, scrappy military academy team, but Army lacks the talent to hang with the Irish. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 85%.
Nov. 27: @ USC. Thanksgiving weekend, our daughter is bringing a bunch of her Notre Dame friends home for this game. USC is getting a lot of love in 2010, despite the bitch-slap they got from the NCAA. Notre Dame only lost to USC by 7 in 2009. We're going to be better in 2010 than we were in 2009. Is USC really going to be better than last season? I'm not convinced. This is a statement game for Coach Kelly. His legacy will begin on the floor of the Coliseum. Much like Charlie Weis' first game against the unstoppable Trojans in 2005, this will be an instant classic. Only this time the good guys win. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%.
Conclusion: An 11-1 first season for Coach Kelly? Possible, but not likely. Remember Assumption #4, above. There will be growing pains. Using my confidence factors for the twelve games we compute a more reasonable expected win total:
.85 + .75 + .45 + .65 + .60 + .55 + .95 + .70 + .80 + .70 + .85 + .60 = 8.45 wins
So, if we use my estimation of the Irish chances of winning each of their twelve games, we get an expected win total between 8 and 9. I'd really love to see 10 wins. But if we win 8 or 9 and see real progress and growth in year one of the Kelly era, I could live with that. Especially if we beat USC and avoid any really awful Syracuse and Navy type losses.
What are your predictions for the 2010 Irish?